09 December 2005

Happy Meal spirituality...

2nd Week of Advent 2005 (Fri): Is 48.17-19; Matt 11.16-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Not a flattering picture, is it? Jesus compares his generation to fickle children trying to entertain one another in the marketplace: they play joyful music and no one dances, mournful music and no one cries. They complain bitterly to one another because the entertainment is ignored, unappreciated. You can almost see their energetic boredom, their restless hunger to be amused, diverted—show us something fun, something wild and crazy! Their attention owned by the flashiest sight, the loudest noise, the most daring stunt. They are a generation of vacillating thrill seekers, a generation given over to the inconsistency of their passion for the next bright-shiny thing, the next pretty novelty, the next whatever it is that they haven’t seen before.

Jesus is worried that his generation lacks wisdom, that there is a spirit of folly animating those who watch him and expect to be entertained, those who follow him but do so only to see a show. This fickleness is a sign that an abiding wisdom eludes them, that they have sold themselves to the arena, the theater of foolishness, and squander their lives on the silliness of spectacle.

This fickle generation rejects John because of his asceticism—no eating, no drinking—and they reject Jesus because of his generosity—a friend of tax collectors and sinners. Every face of redemption shown them, they reject. Every opportunity given to them to come to wisdom seems somehow wrong, not quite to their taste. Jesus’ frustration with their folly is clear in his irritated tone: “But wisdom is vindicated by her works.”

Of course, Jesus’ vision is broader than one generation. No doubt he is looking forward and watching generation after generation fall into the same temptation to pull wisdom down from the altar and replace it with foolish novelties, silly entertainments. Is there a generation that hasn’t done this? Has there been a time in the Church when we weren’t distracted by the empty promises of the Lie and our attention taken away from the Word? Probably not. But I think we’ve gotten a lot better at distilling the silliness into more intense moments of fleeting sensation, much better at staging the drama—the tragedies and the comedies—of our hungry lives into bigger, brighter, better funded orgies of spiritually useless consumption.

Our way out, of course, is Jesus—to be true followers, to get in behind him and walk his path, his narrow way, to our perfection in holiness. Isaiah preaches to us, prophesies for us that it is the Lord, our God, who will teach us what is good and who will lead us on the way we should go. He promises prosperity and vindication, great success and justification, if we will listen to the Lord’s will for us, pay attention to His plan for us and follow Him. God’s wisdom for us will be justified in the works He does for us, with us, and through us.

John’s penitential austerity and Jesus extravagant love, the precursor and the consummation of our salvation, demands a more focused attention, a weightier commitment than all the spiritual entertainments of this generation: New Age non-sense, self-help psychobabble, do-it-my-way-Catholicism, and the cult of narcissistic, material acquisition. What feeds us, fills us finally, is the Lord’s feast of wisdom, His party of eternal goods laid out for us, given to us to satisfy that gnawing hunger, that deep rumbling of need that pushes us toward the easy fill, the quick snack.
Who, but a fool, eats the Happy Meal when the All-You-Can-Eat buffet of the Lord is right here, free of charge?

08 December 2005

The most dangerous announcement...

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Gen 3.9-15, 20; Eph 1.3-6, 11-12; Luke 1.26-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Madonna Hall, University of Dallas

It is the most dangerous announcement ever made: “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” The angel Gabriel, sent by God to Mary, greets the virgin by telling her that she is most graced, wholly blessed, chosen, and attended by the Lord. Very, very dangerous. And Mary knew this: “But she was greatly troubled…” Greatly troubled?! Troubled…and wise. Mary pondered the angelic greeting with dread. She understood that this particular, unique grace picked her out of all God’s creatures. She understood that receiving an angel from the Lord meant a mission, a purpose beyond a mortal end, a life for her of singular graces, an honored life of doing the Father’s will for His glory. Dangerous? You bet!

Mary is being asked by the Lord to serve as bearer of the world’s salvation, the vessel of the Word, and the Mother of a nation redeemed. Saying yes to this places her at that moment in time, that instant of human history where the Divine takes on flesh, sets out toward selfless sacrifice, and heals us all. In her ministry to all creation, the virgin gives her body, her will, for the rest of us so that the Infinite Word might speak Itself as a Finite Word and gather us together into a single heart, a single mind, one voice in witness to the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord.[1] She is the mother of our salvation, the perfected vessel of our eternal healing. Mary is a preacher of the gospel, the first preacher of the Word—the most dangerous job there is.

When we took on the responsibility of bearing the Word to the world—when we became preachers—we took on the dangers of opposing all that the world worships as good. Speaking the Word of Truth against the Lie riles up the worst resentments and the most violent frustrations of those in the world who resent Mary’s Yes, who resent the gift of the Christ Child, and who turn their faces against his invitation to participate in the Divine Life. The danger for us here is twofold: 1) that we are punished as the causes of the resentment and frustration among those who reject the Word and 2) that we succumb to the temptation to see these people as hopeless, beyond reach, and deserving of temporal punishment. The first—that we are blamed—is becoming common enough. The second—our judgment of others—is scandalously common and unworthy of the virgin-child who made our own Yes possible.

The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is first a celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God as man. Mary’s dangerous Yes to God prepares the way of the Lord, make possible his advent in creation, and establishes her as the first preacher of the Word. Her clean conception in the womb of her mother points us unswervingly to God’s mercy, unswervingly to God’s invitation to bear His Word to the world with unyielding charity, steely will, and the mercy of truth.

We can meet the dangers of violent opposition and avoid the dangers of judging others by submitting ourselves in both cases to the ministry of the handmaid: “Lord, let your will be done in me according to your Word.”

[1] See Prayer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, 157.

04 December 2005

We ought to be prophets!

2nd Sunday of Advent (2005): Is 40.1-5, 9-11; 2 Pet 3.8-14; Mark 1.1-8
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Here comes with power the Lord God! Do not fear but cry out: “Here is your God!” Cry out at the top of your voice, “Good News! Prepare the way of the Lord!” Straighten the road in the wasteland. Fill in every valley. Make every mountain and hill low. And then, and then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. He is patient with us, wishing that we should come to repentance and not perish. But He is coming to judge, and He will come, stealing back into history like a thief quietly stealing into a house. And when he does, the heavens will pass away in thunder, the elements will melt in fire, and “the earth and everything done on it will be found out.” Since the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and the heavens and the earth shall be dissolved at His coming, what sort of persons ought we to be? (Repeat)

Advent is a penitential season. And it is a season of rejoicing. We turn out our sins and expose them to the Lord’s fierce grace, and we rejoice at the promise of His coming. We take stock of the time we’ve spent so far, and we offer to God for blessing the time we have left. Repent and rejoice. Convert and sing praise. Confess and follow righteousness. Prepare His way in your heart, your mind, your body and your soul. Lay a clear path to the center of your covenant with Him, open the gates of your reason for His light, make a gift of your flesh for His works of compassion and your soul an offering of immortal praise. Now, now is the time for searching faults and finding mercy, for opening wounds and finding health. Now is the time to straighten your path to God. “Here comes with power the Lord God!”

And so, what sort of person ought you, ought we to be? This is the perfect question for Advent because it is a question that requires us to think in terms of who we ARE and how we ought to ACT. It is a question that requires us to think about how we balance on an edge and walk tightly the line between being good and doing good. In his letter, Peter, asks his readers what sort of persons they should be given the coming of the Lord and then immediately elaborates on the question by adding, “…conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…” Who we ARE goes hand in hand with how we ACT. For the beloved of the Lord, being good and doing good are inextricably bound together in the Lord’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth. We wait and prepare and repent. We cultivate holiness and practice devotion. And like John the Baptist, we cry out in the desert of wherever we are: “Get ready! He’s on His way!” In other words, we ought to be prophets.

As the One Who Comes Before the Christ, John the Baptizer appears out of the desert preaching repentance. As the prophet Isaiah says, he is the messenger sent ahead, a voice from the desert urging those who heard his cry to “prepare the way of the Lord.” This made John a prophet, a herald. He’s the guy who showed up first, told the truth about Who and What was coming, and offered those who heard a chance to get themselves straight with God before the fires caught and before the winnowing wind began to blow. He was an alarm ringing in Jerusalem, calling everyone away from sin and toward righteousness.

John wasn’t just about serving up the doom and gloom of The End. He offered more than a prediction and sharp tongue. John made it possible in his preaching for those listening to begin a better way to God, to start over with the Father and bear good fruit. He offered a baptism of water to wash away confessed sins. And he offered a vision of the straightened path to the Father: the good fruits of repentance will show that you are ready for the coming of the Lord AND make you a prophet, a herald of Christ’s Coming. Yes, we ought to be prophets, but are we ready to be prophets?

It is not enough that we acknowledge our sins, wash in the baptismal waters, and come spotless to God. Our acknowledgement of sin, our willingness to be found without blemish, must produce good fruit. Being good in theory builds lovely temples in the air. Doing good for show makes good theatre. But airy temples blow away and the curtain falls on even the best theatre! Living our lives as a prophetic witnesses, now that’s the sort of folks we ought to be!

What does it mean for us to be prophetic? It doesn’t mean putting on camel hair shirts and eating locusts and honey. It doesn’t mean standing on the street screaming fire and God’s wrath. It doesn’t even mean being particularly pious or holy if by “pious” and “holy” we mean being outwardly righteous for show.
Nor does being prophetic mean taking all the right political positions, protesting all the wrong ones, signing petitions, and marching around with wearing little buttons and issuing self-important statements. This too can be as empty as false piety.

So, what does being prophetic mean? Let’s look at John. He comes out of the desert, a desolate place, a place devoid of life. He finds his voice there. Outside family, friends, culture, and civilization, John finds a voice to proclaim the Coming Christ. He doesn’t use this voice to promote himself. He speaks of Another. He doesn’t prepare the way for his own celebrity. He celebrates Christ. He doesn’t try to make his own life easier by claiming some sort of divine connection. He makes the paths straight for the Lord. He doesn’t try to “fit in” or blend in or “inculturate.” He preaches against the cultural grain, against the prevailing ethic. He is not concerned about being comfortable with his role or finding satisfaction in his ministry or being a team player. His is a lonely voice. He does not coddle the legalists or the revolutionaries, the lawyers or the trendy academics. He calls them to repentance and a life of good fruits. He points again and again to Christ, the mightier One, the One Who Comes to baptize in the Spirit. Always pointing toward Christ, always toward Jesus. And that is what a prophet does.

Absolutely, we ought to be prophets. We are ready to be a prophets if we will acknowledge our sin. Repent. Turn around. Face God. Produce good fruit first and then expect it from others. Live waiting on the Lord, at peace; and proclaim with every word, every act: “Prepare! Christ is coming”